Shooting Out the Lights
The master of mordant plaint, Richard Thompson, rebounds with his best record in a decade.
By Edd Hurt
MARCH 6, 2000: An ace guitarist and accomplished songwriter, Richard Thompson is also a man who appreciates a jape. When asked if he would rather sit in with Kid Rock or Britney Spears, he opts for the Louisiana-born teen singer and dancer.
The incongruity of a master of mordant plaint hanging out with a teenaged pop queen might titillate, but it's actually not that far-fetched. Thompson has worked with lots of characters.
Born in London in 1949, Thompson had the usual influences on guitar growing up Django Reinhardt, James Burton, Paul Burlison, Scotty Moore.
"Scotty Moore was all there was to listen to, in those days," he says.
So it's not surprising that when Thompson played Memphis for the first time last Valentine's Day, he visited Sun Studio, where Moore's career began.
"I thought it was great," Thompson says of his visit. "There were a few ghosts hangin' about. I really did focus on Sun Records, how humble it was, and the unstoppable talent of the performances. 'Great Balls of Fire,' that's only piano and drums the guitarist was out havin' a drink."
There was also Davy Graham, the "first really interesting guitar player in England," according to Thompson. Graham, whose mid-'60s albums combined Charles Mingus compositions, folk songs, and original tunes, was an important precursor to Thompson.
Thompson got his professional start as a guitarist in the seminal '60s folk-rock group Fairport Convention. That group established its reputation by marrying British Isles traditional music with the folk-rock vogue of the time. The group was as likely to pull a tune out of England's ancient past as it was to borrow material from the catalogs of Sand Denny, Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell. But at the same time, the individual members of the group were themselves developing into fine songwriters, the most notable today being Thompson.
At first, though, it was Thompson's voice on the guitar that people noticed. Around 1970, he began to be in demand for his guitar work, once described by Robert Christgau as "unique, timeless modalism." He played on albums by artists as diverse as the Velvet Underground's prog rock violinist John Cale and short-lived Donovan clone Nick Drake.
Thompson left Fairport Convention in 1971 and made his first solo album, Starring As Henry the Human Fly, the next year.
He then began making a string of classic albums in the '70s with his wife, singer Linda Thompson. These are the works for which Richard Thompson is best known: I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight, Hokey Pokey (both 1974), and Pour Down Like Silver (1976) established a style that culminated in 1982's Shoot Out the Lights.
That album, on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 greatest rock-and-roll records, established Richard and Linda Thompson as sort of the Sufi version of George Jones and Tammy Wynette. It is a powerful album about marital discord. Unfortunately, the marital discord was real, and the Thompsons split later that year.
Thompson's '80s work found him deepening his fan base, but critics noted a sameness in his albums "the usual twisted love songs and shitload of guitar," as Christgau put it.
With Fred Frith, Henry Kaiser, and John French, Thompson made a couple of albums in the late '80s that stand with his best work. Live, Love, Larf & Loaf (1987) contains great stuff, such as a Korean song, "Hai Sai Uji-San;" a sardonic demolition of Chuck Berry; the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA;" and his own "Drowned Dog Black Night."
"It's hard to get that particular quartet together," Thompson says. "But then there's our fabled Christmas album, which is under wraps deeply traditional songs."
Last year, after spending much of the '90s in over-produced hell Mirror Ball, You? Me? Us? Thompson rebounded as a solo artist with Mock Tudor, an album meditation on suburbia that puts Thompson back in the stripped-down setting that emphasizes Thompson's strongest attributes, his guitar and his songs.
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